Ai Weiwei joins call on Obama to pardon Snowden
World-renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is joining forces with Amnesty International to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters around the world to inundate the White House with messages in support of Edward Snowden, as part of the world’s biggest human rights campaign, launched today.
The Write for Rights campaign, from 2-16 December, is also taking on 10 other human rights cases, including a jailed Egyptian photojournalist “Shawkan” at risk of execution, Azerbaijani activists tortured after graffitiing a statue, and an Indonesian teacher imprisoned for the simple act of waving a flag. (See annex for full list of cases.)
“A world in which nobody stands up for whistleblowers and activists is a world where nobody takes risks to defend the public interest or expose government abuses. People need to stand together to defend the kind of society they want to live in,” said Edward Snowden.
“By lifting the lid on global mass surveillance, Edward Snowden started one of the major human rights struggles of the 21st century."
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General
“By lifting the lid on global mass surveillance, Edward Snowden started one of the major human rights struggles of the 21st century. Without him, the world would still be in the dark about a massive invasion of privacy. Instead, there is now a nascent global movement fighting for human rights online,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“The price of exposing abuse of power must not be exile. President Obama must listen to the voice of people around the world who stand with Snowden. These people want to live in a world where they can keep intimate details of their lives private, and where people are not prosecuted for exposing human rights abuses.
“Snowden clearly acted in the interest both of the US public, and of people around the world. The USA should never have charged him in the first place. By pardoning him, President Obama can end his term by breaking with an insidious pattern of US presidents favouring government secrecy over human rights.”
Amnesty International has always considered Edward Snowden a whistleblower, and believes that no one should be charged for disclosing information about human rights violations. Along with PardonSnowden.org, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International launched a petition on 14 September 2016 calling on President Obama to pardon Snowden.
Snowden still faces decades in prison under World War One-era espionage laws that equate whistleblowing in the public interest with selling secrets to foreign enemies of the USA. Without the guarantee of a fair trial and a public interest defence, he has no choice but to live in limbo in Russia.
Ai Weiwei backs human rights campaign
Ai Weiwei has created 11 more of his famous LEGO portraits for each case taken up by Write for Rights this year. From 2 to 16 December, he will join hundreds of thousands of Amnesty International supporters in sending messages of support to victims of human rights abuses and messages calling for action to world leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
“I am taking part in this campaign to support people who have suffered for doing or saying things that their governments did not approve of. As an artist, free speech is essential to my work, and I know first-hand what happens when that comes into conflict with the powers that be, and how important global support is when the state tries to silence you. Allowing people to express themselves is the difference between a modern society and a barbaric one,” said Ai Weiwei.
Last year, people taking part in the Write for Rights campaign sent more than 3.7 million letters, emails, SMS messages, faxes, tweets and more, making it the world’s biggest human rights campaign.
This year people will be writing messages calling on, among others:
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop the building of a huge dam that would drown more than 80km of land in Peace River Valley, British Columbia, sweeping away Indigenous hunting, fishing and burial grounds.
- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to release two youth activists jailed and tortured after graffitiing a political message (“Happy Slave Day”) on a statue of the former president (Aliyev’s father) ahead of his birthday (known in the country as “Flower Day”).
- Cameroonian President Paul Biya to release Fomusoh Ivo Feh, a student from Cameroon jailed for 10 years for forwarding an SMS to his friend. The message joked that even Boko Haram will only hire young people with good school results – a reference to how hard it is to get a good job without the right qualifications.
- Chinese authorities to free Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and well known critic of China’s ethnic and religious policies in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). He was sentenced to life in jail for “separatism” – a charge that has often been used against Uighurs who speak out against human rights violations.
“Amnesty International asks people to take injustice personally, and there are few more direct ways of taking action than picking up a pen and writing a letter to tell someone courageous that you stand with them, or telling someone in authority that you are watching them,” said Salil Shetty.
“Our campaign sends a message to the world that people are ready to stand up to abuses of power, wherever they take place. It’s our duty to shine a light on injustice, so governments cannot look the other way.”
Solidarity campaign has seen prisoners released, pardoned
In the 2015 campaign, hundreds of thousands of people in more than 200 countries and territories sent 3.7 million (up from 3.2 million in 2014) messages offering support or calling for action for individuals and communities from Mexico to Myanmar experiencing human rights abuses.
The campaign contributed to major human rights victories around the world:
DRC: On 30 August 2016, youth activists Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala were released on bail, having been arrested at a press conference and accused of forming a criminal gang and attempting to overthrow the government. Until their release, Fred and Yves were awaiting a trial that could have seen them face the death penalty. Amnesty International supporters wrote more than 170,000 messages of support or calling for their release.[TC1]
Mexico: On 7 June 2016, Yecenia Armenta was acquitted and released, after four years in jail. In 2012 she was beaten, near-asphyxiated and raped during 15 hours of torture until she was forced to “confess” to involvement in the murder of her husband. Amnesty International supporters sent 318,000 messages about her case.
Myanmar: On 8 April 2016, a court dropped charges against student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung, detained for a year after helping to organize largely peaceful student protests. Amnesty International supporters across the world wrote more than 394,000 letters, emails, tweets and other messages of support and calling for her release. Thanking them, she said, “International organizations like Amnesty never forget the people who are facing injustice in their struggle for democracy and human rights. We need to be strong and remember how important it is to join together in our struggles.”
USA: On 19 February 2016, the state of Louisiana freed Albert Woodfox, 44 years after he was first put into solitary confinement, following three court rulings overturning his conviction. More than 240,000 people took action for Albert during Write for Rights 2015.
“A message of solidarity from a stranger can give strength to people who have lost hope, and can stir a second thought in authorities who have lost compassion. Spread the word: writing a letter can change a life. Your grandparents, your friends, your neighbours, your school friends, your colleagues – get them all to write a letter this December, because everyone can make a difference,” said Salil Shetty.
“Even in an age of mass digital communication, the act of writing a message to someone facing grave injustice is a powerful act of solidarity that makes a massive difference. The Write for Rights campaign sends a message victims that ‘We are with you’, while also reminding the authorities that we are watching.”